/ 17 August 2006

Spike Lee’s Katrina film debuts in New Orleans

As many as 12 000 people, many of them Hurricane Katrina survivors, jammed the New Orleans Arena late on Wednesday for the premiere of filmmaker Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary about the deadly storm.

The free showing of When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts took place just a stone’s throw from the Louisiana Superdome, which became a sweltering pit of human misery after Katrina, and which figures prominently in the film’s first hour.

The outspoken director, whose credits include Do the Right Thing (1989) and this year’s Inside Man, was in a jocular mood during his brief introduction, despite the documentary’s serious subject matter. ”I hope you went to the bathroom, because there’s no break,” Lee told the crowd.

When the Levees Broke begins with the days leading up to August 29 2005, when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1 300, rendering tens of thousands more homeless and inundating 80% of New Orleans with fetid flood water.

Told almost exclusively through interviews with hurricane survivors and the officials charged with rescuing them, Lee has said his documentary, which will air August 21 on the cable channel Home Box Office, was an effort to give a voice to the people most affected by the storm.

One was Gina Montana, who rode out the hurricane in her mid-city home with her daughter Jamia Montana-Forbes, and who appears frequently in the film. ”It’s a part of our life. It’s a part of American history at this point,” Montana said minutes before the screening began.

”What happened to New Orleans was unprecedented. It was a crime against humanity. There was no reason for people to suffer the way they did,” she added.

The film includes stark footage of the storm and its aftermath, when thousands of people were stranded in the sweltering city for days before help from the federal government arrived.

President George Bush, whose appearances onscreen were met with boos and hisses from the crowd, comes in for especially harsh criticism for what many here see as a slow, inept response to the tragedy.

The documentary is emotionally wide-ranging, with harrowing images of dead bodies resting in muck interspersed with moments of inspiration, even humour. The shifts in mood are punctuated with a bluesy score by New Orleans native and frequent Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard.

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who had not seen the film beforehand, said he hopes the documentary will help remind people, nearly a year after the storm, that the city is still struggling to rebound.

”It’s going to give people a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenge of recovering from this historic tragedy,” said Nagin, who is featured extensively in the film.

Nagin said he was unsure of how he would react to the documentary, but that he was prepared for the worst. ”I don’t know what to expect from an emotional standpoint, because I really haven’t had the energy to go back and relive this,” he said. ”This is going to be the first time I’m reliving this tragedy, so it’s going to be interesting for me personally. I have plenty of tissues in my pocket, so I’m ready.”

New Orleans resident Katherine Boykin, who has been living in a trailer since her home was flooded, was on the verge of tears after viewing the film’s first half. ”It was very moving, and it can anger you a little,” said Boykin. ”If only more people from outside knew what we are going through.

”Here we are, 12 months later, and I still have a gutted-out house. I’ve been paying my mortgage; I’ve been paying my insurance. How did we get to this point? I’m still waiting.”

Historian Douglas Brinkley, whose book The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast also blasts federal, state and local officials for their actions before and after the storm, praised Lee’s film, calling it ”the event of the one-year anniversary”.

Saying When the Levees Broke would come to be regarded as a milestone in African-American history, just as the film version of Harper Lee’s civil-rights-era novel To Kill a Mockingbird was required viewing for an earlier generation, Brinkley added the documentary is a ”necessary” addition to the year-long coverage of the storm and its aftermath.

”This is not a television event,” he said ”This is a historic event.” — Sapa-AFP